Signs of hope emerge at last minute for Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center

Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center (Steve Neavling/MCM)
Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center. Photos by Steve Neavling/MCM.

The storied Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center in Detroit, where Joe Louis learned to box in the shadow of the nation’s first public housing project for African Americans, appeared to be headed for demolition earlier this month.

But less than a month after Mayor Mike Duggan announced that time was running out to save the building, which closed eight years ago today, more than a dozen city workers converged on the building to remove years of trash and debris and mow the lawn this weekend.  The city also hired a security guard to protect the building 24/7.
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Demolition of the Brewster-Douglass housing projects
Demolition of the Brewster-Douglass housing projects.

Duggan’s office declined to say whether the cleanup and security were due to recent interest in the building following news of the looming demolition. Crews are razing the remains of the adjacent Brewster Projects-Douglass housing project.

Duggan said the storied building would be demolished unless someone comes forward with a realistic plan to redevelop the recreation center, which started out as a library in the slums in 1917, according to

The rec center is an important part of Detroit history. The art deco building, named after the first black city recreation worker, Leon Wheeler, was converted into a community center after city officials rejected calls to integrate the spacious, first-rate YMCA in downtown Detroit.
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Inside the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center
Inside the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center

“I dedicate this building for the people of the city of Detroit, regardless of race, color or creed. I realize that much prejudice exists in Detroit, but a building of this kind will help wipe it out,” Detroit Mayor John C. Nagel said during an opening ceremony on Nov. 1, 1929, according to The Chicago Defender.

At the time, the center was considered the largest of its kind in the country.

Over the decades, the center and adjacent housing projects fell into disrepair. Last year, then-Mayor Dave Bing  secured $6.5 million in federal funding to finance the demolition of the housing projects.

Mayor Duggan wants to redevelop the area on the heels of an adjacent $650-million Red Wings arena and entertainment district expected to be built by mid-2017.
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Hydrochloric acid_180036

The city has been unable to find a buyer for the recreation center because the building has been neglected and scavenged of metal. Graffiti covers most of the interior and exterior. In the basement is a discarded drum of hydrochloric acid, a hazardous substance.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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